How much better could your people deliver to your clients or customers, if they weren’t cognitively exhausted? If they weren’t running on empty and constantly in a rush?
How much better could they deliver if they were full of mental energy? If they felt restored at the end of a working day and came in the next day at their sharpest and most creative?
What difference would that make to your clients and your business? To your bottom line?
These are just a few of the pertinent questions posed by author Helen Beedham when we spoke on Zoom, on the back of the publication of her already award-winning book The Future of Time: How ‘re-working’ time can help you boost productivity, diversity and wellbeing (it was named business book of the year in the People, Culture & Management Category of The Business Book Awards 2023).
To get to the utopia when employee wellbeing is genuinely prioritised, and jobs are designed to optimise this, we need to adopt a new attitude to time, argues Beedham. We spoke to her for over an hour (a long but good use of time!) quizzing her on how to do this.
The line that really jumped out for me in your book is the one when you say we need to call out the well-intended corporate wellbeing solutions versus the reality of many working environments. Can you explain what you meant?
Alongside the important wellbeing support and provision that companies should put in place, there has to be an equal effort going into people’s day to day experience of work. It can’t just be about wellbeing webinars and gym memberships.
That feeds into our time culture, and the way that work is commissioned, resourced and managed. Without tackling these issues, people’s experience of work will never change because of a corporate wellbeing programme.
Can you cite any examples of companies who have changed their attitude to time along these lines?
In a recent online webinar, I spoke with the Global Head of HR and Learning for law firm Pinsent Masons, Jonathan Bond, who was instrumental in helping to set up the Mindful Business Charter in the law industry.
He talked about how he got their biggest clients on board with finding new and more sustainable ways for clients to work with lawyers by asking them:
‘What makes the biggest difference in us delivering well to you?’
‘We want the freshest, sharpest minds on the job. And we don’t want your people burnt out and exhausted, because they’re not going to do their best work for us.’
Armed with that client buy-in, he was then able to say to the leadership ‘this is what clients want’ and make the commercial case for establishing more sustainable ways of working and minimising wasted working time to improve lawyers’ energy and ability to think at their best.
Do you think we are seeing a change in client attitudes generally to how their suppliers treat their people?
Increasingly, organisations are being closely scrutinised on their actual working practices, not just the formal statements about diversity and inclusion and wellbeing.
From an ESG point of view, they are thinking very carefully about which organisations they partner with and these organisations’ commitment to employee wellbeing.
Clients in pitches are saying things like: ‘I’m going to worry if you make the same person available to me 24/7, because they’re not going to be at their best 24/7. And I want to know you have a good mix of people in my team who’ll bring in different perspectives and insights.’
The companies that have bad reputations for burning people out will start to get noticed more and more. They will struggle to hold on to and recruit the talent they need with the necessary skills to help their business thrive.
We all need to change our attitude to time. I completely get that. But I still associate lots of hours getting ‘stuff done’ with ‘a good day’ even if (as it often does) it hasn’t been the best day for my wellbeing. Or it hasn’t focused on the ‘important’, only the ‘urgent’. How do we overcome that in the workplace?
We are personally and individually responsible for managing our time, I’m not taking that away at all. I completely identify with the tendency to measure a good day by the amount we’ve ticked off a to-do list, but I do think we need to let go of this idea. A productive day in the right context might be doing one thing well. Or having some unfocused time to allow ideas or information to percolate. Or actually dropping the to-do list altogether because a loved one needs you.
But it’s not just down to the individual to push against this endless tide of work and incoming information 24/7.
The bit that is missing is we are not talking about time management enough collectively in our organisations.
Do you find companies can define what a productive day is?
No. And I’ve asked loads of them! They tend to fall back on measures like ‘how many things have we got done? How many people have we got through training?’. They’re not looking at the outcomes, they are looking at the inputs. They are relying on time as a proxy and it’s problematic.
One of the reasons I wrote the book is that I struggle with this too and I’m fascinated by our often-problematic relationship with time. Another is that I hoped it would invite people to stop and think, and discuss these things in their organisation.
What is the change that you would like to see in organisations?
I’d like to see, first and foremost, people in the top roles in organisations working different patterns, very visibly. I want to see them be very transparent about when they’re switching off and really leading by example. The problem is, very few leaders are doing that.
I would also like to see them value downtime rather than constant activity and busyness. But downtime is often seen as not working hard enough and nobody admits to having a quieter day for fear of that being career-limiting.
If we did all these things, I think we’d see more diverse talent reaching, and staying at, the top and we’d see less sickness and improved productivity because we’d be better able to focus on the work that really makes a difference.